4.1 Magma and Magma Formation

Magmas can vary widely in composition, but in general they are made up of only eight elements; in order of importance: oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and potassium (Figure 4.1.1). Oxygen, the most abundant element in magma, comprises a little less than half the total, followed by silicon at just over one-quarter. The remaining elements make up the other one-quarter. Magmas derived from crustal material are dominated by oxygen, silicon, aluminum, sodium, and potassium.

The composition of magma depends on the rock it was formed from (by melting), and the conditions of that melting. Magmas derived from the mantle have higher levels of iron, magnesium, and calcium, but they are still likely to be dominated by oxygen and silicon. All magmas have varying proportions of elements such as hydrogen, carbon, and sulphur, which are converted into gases like water vapour, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulphide as the magma cools.

Elements in the Earth's crust. Long decriptions available
Figure 4.1.1: Average elemental proportions in Earth’s crust, which is close to the average composition of magmas within the crust. [Image Description]

Virtually all of the igneous rocks that we see on Earth are derived from magmas that formed from partial melting of existing rock, either in the upper mantle or the crust. Partial melting is what happens when only some parts of a rock melt; it takes place because rocks are not pure materials. Most rocks are made up of several minerals, each of which has a different melting temperature. The wax in a candle is a pure material. If you put some wax into a warm oven (50°C will do as the melting temperature of most wax is about 40°C) and leave it there for a while, it will soon start to melt. That’s complete melting, not partial melting. If instead you took a mixture of wax, plastic, aluminum, and glass and put it into the same warm oven, the wax would soon start to melt, but the plastic, aluminum, and glass would not melt (Figure 4.1.2a). That’s partial melting and the result would be solid plastic, aluminum, and glass surrounded by liquid wax (Figure 4.1.2b). If we heat the oven up to around 120°C, the plastic would melt too and mix with the liquid wax, but the aluminum and glass would remain solid (Figure 4.1.2c). Again this is partial melting. If we separated the wax/plastic “magma” from the other components and let it cool, it would eventually harden. As you can see from Figure 4.1.2d, the liquid wax and plastic have mixed, and on cooling, have formed what looks like a single solid substance. It is most likely that this is a very fine-grained mixture of solid wax and solid plastic, but it could also be some other substance that has formed from the combination of the two.

Figure 4.1.2: Partial melting of “pretend rock”: (a) the original components of white candle wax, black plastic pipe, green beach glass, and aluminum wire, (b) after heating to 50˚C for 30 minutes only the wax has melted, (c) after heating to 120˚C for 60 minutes much of the plastic has melted and the two liquids have mixed, (d) the liquid has been separated from the solids and allowed to cool to make a “pretend rock” with a different overall composition.

In this example, we partially melted some pretend rock to create some pretend magma. We then separated the magma from the source and allowed it to cool to make a new pretend rock with a composition quite different from the original material (it lacks glass and aluminum).

Of course partial melting in the real world isn’t exactly the same as in our pretend-rock example. The main differences are that rocks are much more complex than the four-component system we used, and the mineral components of most rocks have more similar melting temperatures, so two or more minerals are likely to melt at the same time to varying degrees. Another important difference is that when rocks melt, the process takes thousands to millions of years, not the 90 minutes it took in the pretend-rock example.

Contrary to what one might expect, and contrary to what we did to make our pretend rock, most partial melting of real rock does not involve heating the rock up. The two main mechanisms through which rocks melt are decompression melting and flux melting. Decompression melting takes place within Earth when a body of rock is held at approximately the same temperature but the pressure is reduced. Flux melting is facilitated by the addition of a flux (typically water and other volatiles) that lowers the melting point of the rock.

The partial melting of rock happens in a wide range of situations, most of which are related to plate tectonics. The more important of these are shown in Figure 4.1.3. Decompression melting occurs when rock is being moved toward the surface, either at a mantle plume, or in the upwelling part of a mantle convection cell (e.g., at a spreading centre formed at a divergent plate boundary, like a mid-ocean ridge). At subduction zones, water from the wet, subducting oceanic crust is transferred into the overlying hot mantle. This provides the flux needed to lower the melting temperature. In both of these cases, only partial melting takes place—typically only about 10% of the rock melts—and it is always the most silica-rich components of the rock that melt, creating a magma that is more silica-rich than the rock from which it is derived. (By analogy, the melt from our pretend rock is richer in wax and plastic than the “rock” from which it was derived.) The magma produced, being less dense than the surrounding rock, moves up through the mantle, and eventually into the crust.

Figure 4.1.3: Common sites of magma formation in the upper mantle. The black circles are regions of partial melting. The blue arrows represent water being transferred from the subducting plates into the overlying mantle.

As it moves toward the surface, and especially when it moves from the mantle into the lower crust, the hot magma interacts with the surrounding rock. This typically leads to partial melting of the surrounding rock because most such magmas are hotter than the melting temperature of crustal rock. (In this case, melting is caused by an increase in temperature.) Again, the more silica-rich parts of the surrounding rock are preferentially melted, and this contributes to an increase in the silica content of the magma.

At very high temperatures (over 1300°C), most magma is entirely liquid because there is too much energy for the atoms to bond together. As the temperature drops, usually because the magma is slowly moving upward, things start to change. Silicon and oxygen combine to form silica tetrahedra, and then, as cooling continues, the tetrahedra start to link together to make chains (polymerize). These silica chains have the important effect of making the magma more viscous (less runny), which has significant implications for volcanic eruptions. As the magma continues to cool, crystals start to form.

Image Descriptions

Figure 4.1.1 image description: The average elemental proportions in the Earth’s crust from the largest amount to the smallest amount. Oxygen (46.6%), Silicon (27.7%), Aluminum (8.1%), Iron (5.0%), Calcium (3.6%), Sodium (2.8%), Potassium (2.6%), Magnesium (2.1%), Others (1.5%). [Return to Figure 4.1.1]

Media Attributions

  • Figure 4.1.1, 4.1.2: © Steven Earle. CC BY.
  • Figure 4.1.3: “Cross section” by José F. Vigil from This Dynamic Planet — a wall map produced jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Adapted by Steven Earle. Public domain.


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A Practical Guide to Introductory Geology Copyright © 2020 by Siobhan McGoldrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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